Monday, March 25, 2019

Texas lawsuit challenges mandatory membership in State Bar Association

Three Texas lawyers have filed a federal lawsuit claiming that mandatory membership in the State Bar of Texas violates their First Amendment right against coerced speech because the State Bar Association is using members’ mandatory dues, among other things, to fund programs that help undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, diversity initiatives and programs related to access to legal representation.  The case is called McDonald v. Longley and you can read the complaint here.

The question of the constitutionality of an integrated bar is not new.  In 1961, the US Supreme Court rejected a constitutional attack of mandatory membership in state bar associations in a case called Lathrop v. Donahue, 367 US 820 (1961). Also, in Cuyahoga Cty. Bar. Assn. v. Supeme Court of Ohio, 430 US 901 (1977), the Court summarily affirmed a lower court ruling on the constitutionality of a mandatory annual fee to support a state bar and disciplinary system. However, the free speech and free association arguments advanced in Lathrop were not rejected by the prevailing opinion. The Court simply found that more facts were needed for them to be considered. Other courts, however, have found that mandatory fees need to be related to bar organization matters.

Also, I discussed in some detail the back and forth history of the issue in Puerto Rico here.

The Texas Bar allows its members to opt out of supporting causes they do not believe in, but the plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege this system is inadequate.  At the very least, they argue, the system should be one in which the members would be required to "opt in" to avoid forcing them to fall into the default position of supporting causes they may or may not agree with.

Courthouse News and The ABA Journal have stories on the Texas lawsuit here and here.  According to the ABA Journal's story, the Texas lawsuit is among at least four current lawsuits that challenge mandatory state bar dues.

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